Poetry (2010)

Director:  Lee Chang-dong
Cast:  Yun Jeong-hie, Lee Da-wit, Kim Hira 
Plot:  A sixty-something woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime and in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, finds strength and purpose when she enrolls in a poetry class.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Best Screenplay and nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  139min
Rating:  NC16 for some sexual content.

Poetry, the latest by Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong, is a terrific film. It is not his best effort, but it remains to be a picture that resonates well with our emotions, while at the same time exploring themes of identity, of contemplating life as a mysterious puzzle of suffering and joy, and of learning to find the true path to our inner soul. Ultimately, it is a film that teaches us to be at peace with ourselves no matter how things turn out, no matter how situations unfold, while drawing parallels to the art of learning poetry.

As you will see, Mija (Yun Jeong-hie), the lead character in Poetry takes up a class in poetry. She is an old grandmother who takes care of her irresponsible grandson Jong-wook (Lee Da-wit) and lives in a small apartment. 

She shows symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease but continues to look forward to life with a notepad in hand, recording her observations of nature in a bid to write a poem by the end of her poetry course. She works part-time as a caregiver to a quite wealthy old man half-paralyzed because of a stroke, and gets some financial support from the government.

Lee’s film unfolds with natural ease. Beginning with a prologue that foreshadows troubled times ahead, Poetry slowly but steadily immerses us into the world of Mija, which is, by anyone’s standards, a mundane one. Yun’s performance is exceptional and we are inclined to vouch for her. 

But when a key plot information is revealed in the second act, Mija is hit hard by the circumstances of reality. We feel sad for her character yet we discover that she is not intending to seek solace but to find inner strength through poetry.

Can poetry be learnt? Mija’s teacher tells her that the answer lies within oneself. Lee, who won Best Screenplay at Cannes for his outstanding work here, delivers a lyrical ode to the beauty of life, and poignantly juxtaposing it with its ugliness. What is beauty if there is no ugliness? What is fairness if there is no justice? 

Poetry explores the ambiguity of moral and ethical decisions that we make in our lives, and true to the ancient art of poem-writing, we see that it is our inner self that guides us to these decisions. Lee beautifully translates this onto the screen, without a whiff of manipulative sentimentality.


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